Mountainside: You can be smart and still be wrong

In 2012 Jonah Lehrer wrote an article in the New Yorker titled, “Why Smart People Are Stupid.” The article opened with a simple math problem: “A bat and a ball cost a dollar and 10 cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

When I read the problem, I immediately thought the answer was 10 cents. Of course, it isn’t. If you pause and think for a moment, you will realize that the ball costs a nickel and the bat costs a dollar and five cents. Now that I know the answer, I feel stupid. But it turns out that most people respond the way I did. As Lehrer wrote, “When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions.”

The article goes on to say that contrary to what you might think, highly educated people are, in fact, more susceptible to such thinking errors than those who are less educated. Furthermore, we all tend to assume that everyone else is more likely to make mistakes than we are. Obviously, such cognitive failure could be a problem in the backcountry.

Molly Absolon

Molly Absolon

Over the weekend a friend and I went skiing in a place neither of us knew well. We’d both been there before, but not as the primary route finder, so we didn’t have the area totally dialed. Our aim was to ski down through some trees. We’d identified the handrails that bounded our objective and started off, trying to keep our line between those landmarks. Almost immediately we crossed an uptrack. I was surprised and bummed, thinking someone had beaten us to the trees. As we continued down, I kept thinking the slope was lower angle than I remembered, but still did not stop to evaluate things until the trees opened up into a small valley neither of us recognized. We were confused but figured our uptrack was still to the west, so we headed that way. Instead of finding our tracks we came out onto a pristine slope. No sign of skiers anywhere. At this point, beyond a general knowledge of our location, we really had no idea where we were. After some conversation we decided that the uptrack we crossed must have been ours, and that we’d skied west of our planned route. As we made our way back to our starting point, I thought about our error. I, obviously, had been so confident in myself that rather than stop and think about the unexpected uptrack or the low-angle slope as I skied down, I dreamed up a narrative that explained their presence and justified my continuing downhill. I transformed the information I was receiving to fit my idea of what was supposed to happen. Because, of course, I was too smart to have made a wrong turn.

I recently listened to a presentation by a friend of mine, Jenna Malone, titled “Betting Your Life: Why Avalanche Forecasting Is More Like Poker Than Chess.” Jenna is an avalanche educator, a ski guide and a physician’s assistant in neurology. In her poker talk, she points out that humans are prone to seeing what we want to see, and tend miss clues that might point out our errors, as I did over the weekend. She also says we are quick to congratulate ourselves for our skill and expertise when we are successful. We like to think we are great, rather than stop to consider other factors that may have attributed to our success.

Jenna’s talk was based on a book by Annie Duke called, “Thinking in Bets.” Duke is a world-class poker player, as well as a social scientist and educator, and her book explores decision making. According to Duke, people tend to take too much credit for their successes and not enough for their failures. Jenna says this is also true for backcountry skiers. So, for example, if you have a flawless day skiing in the backcountry, according to behavior models you are likely to come home feeling pretty darn good about your skill and decision making. If it’s a bad day, on the other hand, you will probably blame it on external events. Something happened to you rather than you did something wrong. So if you are caught in the avalanche you might think it was because someone skied above you, not that you put yourself in an exposed spot. The point is that often your good day has little to do with your skill or decision making and everything to do with your luck. If we want to survive in avalanche terrain, our primary goal is to maximize the likelihood that we are lucky. And there are ways to do that, as we can learn from poker.

To illustrate the role of luck, Duke compares poker to chess. In chess you see every piece, you see your opponent, you observe their every move. Winning and losing has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with skill. You lose a game of chess because your opponent makes better moves. Poker, on the other hand, involves a lot of luck and uncertainty. You can’t see your opponent’s cards. You don’t know what you are going to be dealt, and only rarely is a given poker hand obviously a winning one. More often you have to weigh what you know and then gamble about what you don’t. There’s definitely skill in determining what the best course of action is, but given the inherent uncertainty of the game, you can never take too much credit for your success. The winner may just come down to the luck of the draw. Decision making in avalanche terrain, Jenna says, is a lot more like poker than chess. You have plenty of information to help you make your choice — weather, terrain, snowpack — but it’s rare that the answer is completely straightforward. Lots of stuff remains hidden, unseen beneath a blanket of white snow. So you have to make a decision that involves uncertainty, which means, like poker, you have to guess. But, unlike poker, you are gambling with your life.

Interestingly enough, even armed with information about the inherent flaws in human decision making, people still fall into the same traps. According to Lehrer’s New Yorker article, test subjects still made thinking errors when asked to perform simple math problems despite being told beforehand that they were likely to make them. So you can know that you are likely to answer the bat and ball question incorrectly and still come up with the wrong answer. Furthermore, that likelihood is true for even the smartest, most highly educated of us, which doesn’t bode well for our ability to make rational decisions in avalanche country.

And yet, more people than ever are crowding into the backcountry and skiing avalanche terrain safely. The question is, are they smart or just lucky? Jenna says we can never really know, and in the absence of that kind of feedback we need to be really diligent about making sure we are questioning our decisions and recognizing that we aren’t particularly good at doubting ourselves. She recommends having someone in a group play devil’s advocate. That role, she said, comes from the Roman Catholic church, which formally designates a so-called devil’s advocate when determining if someone deserves to be sainted to make sure nothing is missed. For skiing, a devil’s advocate ensures we don’t let sunshine, sparkling untracked powder, adrenaline and ego blind us to the obvious clues that our decision may not be safe, because in the end we aren’t always going to know for sure if we made a good call or just got lucky. So, like any good gambler, we need to stack the odds in our favor, especially if the consequence of a mistake could be death.

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